Akilah Halley, Executive Director at Marwen
June 4, 2020
Appointed to the City of Chicago’s Cultural Advisory Council in 2020, Akilah Halley (MDes 2005) is the executive director of Marwen, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides no-cost arts education to young people from under-resourced communities and schools across Chicago. Begun as a one-room art studio in 1987, it now supports over 900 students per year. Previously chief communications officer at Crown Philanthropies, Akilah is dedicated to advancing society by using design to inform youth development, organizational strategy, philanthropy, and systemic change.
In this interview, Akilah talks with ID student Justin Bartkus (MDes + MBA 2021) about her ID experience and discusses opportunities for designers entering the civic sector.
Design through a social lens: a pioneering journey
Your connection to Marwen started long before you became executive director. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I was introduced to Marwen as a freshman in high school by my art teacher. At Marwen, I really was able to dive deep into my visual arts passion. It was through Marwen that I learned about the industrial design program at the University of Illinois. I loved math, loved science, loved problem solving, and to have that coupled with drawing and design theory was, for me, a profound joy.
What led you to ID in the first place? What were you looking for?
When I was getting ready to graduate from U of I, I started to become more interested in designing spaces and thinking about how people experience environments, so naturally I started to apply for retail design, interior design jobs, but wasn’t able to find anything.
After job-searching within design in its traditional sense, I started exploring other paths, and that’s when I literally stumbled upon ID. I knew about IIT, being from Chicago, but was not aware of the design school. When I discovered it, I said, “This sounds really interesting!”
Once I started, I just knew that it was the right decision. I realized I wanted to apply design methods in a nonprofit setting. To me, design needed this approach, grappling with these large social and systemic problems—and again, how people experience them. At the time, it wasn’t a common or promoted path. I experienced some resistance and confusion, but I was persistent.
Post-ID, what was it like to pursue a career in nonprofit? Was there any kind of market for designers in that area in 2005?
No, there was no market. In my experiences, absolutely not. There was not a depth of understanding of design thinking or interest in how that background could benefit a nonprofit. I was often met with “Oh, you can make our things look pretty.”
I realized very quickly: “Okay, people may not understand design, but they understand marketing.” Or, “People may not understand design, but they understand communications. People may not understand design, but they understand organizational change or they understand relationship building or community engagement.” So, it was more about interpreting different languages, and then being able to figure out—and this goes back to the design process, too—the intersection of my human-centered design work with the nonprofit’s unmet needs. Essentially I focused on how people experienced their lives, their work, and their areas of support from the organization.
How did the training you received at ID groom you to become the leader you are now?
ID developed my mindset and practices for seeing everything as a design opportunity. It helped me recognize that being human-centered is not just about products, but about relationships—how people relate to each other, their work, your organization, your space, you, and the world around them. It helped me to understand how to build true empathy, remove assumptions, take a step back, observe patterns in human behavior, be an active listener, and make informed decisions.
Is there a recognition of the value of design emerging in the nonprofit and civic spaces?
I do think that design has become more of an emerging area in the nonprofit space. I see it in parallel with the way people are identifying more of the value in the work that artists do as culture makers, as agents of change. Sometimes people use the words “artist” and “designer” interchangeably, and sometimes they are perceived to be at odds. I think the umbrella of creativity is something that is much more embraced and understood, and people are starting to make space for it.
I’ll give you an example: One of Marwen’s board members, who is a former CEO of a large ad agency, became the city’s first Chief Marketing Officer—the City of Chicago has a CMO! This role never existed before. He is someone who is applying a human-centered lens and is thinking about the ways in which design can help in the civic sector. What are the tasks and objectives that our new mayoral administration has, and how do you get communities to understand their role and responsibility in being part of that? I see that as a big step. And I would anticipate that more shifts like that will occur.
In philanthropy, communications officers are more prominent. They are applying a human-centered design lens to their work. How do they make funding decisions? How do they work with the organizations they support? In recent years, there are more design bootcamps and design workshops. It speaks to a recognition that something has shifted. And the more we can emphasize the value of human-centered practices and prove that value, the more we can shift this world.
So design is being applied to communications and marketing in the nonprofit world, but what about research-based interventions?
There’s a little bit of design methodology in things like program design, or in program evaluation and assessment. The focus on data in some spaces is where you will also see design research coming into the fold. More people are focused on what their participants think, so there’s been a push not simply to survey participants, but to actually have dialogue with them, ask thoughtful questions, and actually do something with what we learn. I always say stop designing for people and design with people. So those practices are shifting.
The ID experience
What do you remember most about ID?
The thing that always sticks out to me is the amount of time I actually spent in the studio. It’s significant, I did not anticipate the amount of group work there would be! It got to the point where I actually had a little mini fridge under my desk that was stocked with energy drinks, bottled water, and fruit. It was my lifeline!
I remember also being amazed by so many people not being from Chicago. I was simply struck by that. I enjoyed building relationships with people who I may not have met otherwise, and hearing their stories, whether professional, personal, or cultural.
What classes do you remember most from your time at ID? How do you use what you learned in your work today?
I remember being very impressed by all of the faculty. We were always pushed to think about new ways of either presenting our ideas or understanding different scenarios and perspectives. So that level of educational stimulus and provocative thinking was extremely high.
When Jeremy Alexis taught his classes, he would always say: “Okay, I’m not impressed by that. Give me something else. You’ve got to think of a better solution. What else?” Yeah, it was blunt and direct, but at the same time it forced you to push yourself a little bit more.
The other one I’d add is the demo class with Patrick Whitney; we were doing observations in the triage area at Rush Hospital. For me, that’s where a lot of the connection to nonprofit spaces started to feel more profound because we were making recommendations on how healthcare systems could help save lives, and you can’t get anymore impactful than that.
Advice for ID students
Do you have any advice for ID students today?
I think it’s important to just lean into curiosity, connect with people, not only people are in your class, but alumni too. Whether it’s “I just want to know about your path and experience,” or “I’m interested in this area, would you know someone who would speak with me?”—I cannot overemphasize the importance of making connections.
If your journey was a parable for emerging designers, what would the lesson be?
Your career is a DIY project! It’s important not to rely on the path to be designed for you. It’s about believing in your personal passions, believing in yourself, and kind of building it as you go. When I left ID I didn’t know that my path would take me here, but as I reflect, I do see threads and throughlines.
I feel as if ID equipped me with a mindset and a skillset to recognize that what I learned there is useful in many spaces. And then, when you identify spaces that don’t leverage that approach to problem solving, the world becomes your oyster.
It’s important to trust the things you’re passionate about because design opportunities are endless, and we all know that it takes a lot of work. If you’re going to put forth a lot of work and energy, you want to put it towards a cause that’s deeply meaningful to you.